The Kentucky Derby Festival is one of my favorite times of the year. I have watched the Kentucky Derby since I was a child. Since I was 18 years old until last year, I either attended or hosted a Derby Day party, bet on the Derby as well as other Derby Day Races, and drew names of horses from $2 and $5 pots. I am not a gambler, but Derby Day is the one day a year when I love to bet on the horses. The events during the two-week Derby Festival, such as Thunder Over Louisville, the Great Balloonfest, the Pegasus Parade, and the Great Steamboat Race, just to name a few, set the tone of excitement for the Derby Day finale.
I attended Derby Eve Jam when I was 20 years old in 1980 and saw Journey with the Babys perform. I have actually only been to the Derby one time, to the amazement of co-workers at Fort Knox who could not understand how I could live so close to it and not go. Personally, I would rather watch it on television than to be in that crowd, but I am glad I got to experience it at least once. In 1976, I went with the Meade County Band. We were set up in the infield and I remember looking up at Millionaires Row with binoculars and seeing several celebrities to include Cher and Patrick Wayne, son of John Wayne. Bold Forbes won the Kentucky Derby that year.
The Kentucky Derby’s long history began in 1872 when Meriwether Lewis Clark, the grandson of William Clark, one of the famed pair of Lewis and Clark,traveled to Europe and attended the Epsom Derby in England, which was a well-known horse race run since 1780. He also socialized with the French Jockey Club, a group that developed another popular horse race, the Grand Prix de Paris Longchamps. Clark was inspired by his experiences and upon his return to the United States he was determined to create a spectacular horse racing event. His uncles, John and Henry Churchill, gifted Clark with the necessary land to develop a racetrack and he formally organized a group of local race fans to be named the Louisville Jockey Club in 1874. Clark and his new club raised funds to build a permanent racetrack in Louisville, Kentucky. On May 17, 1875, the racetrack opened its gates and the Louisville Jockey Club sponsored the very first Kentucky Derby. A total of fifteen three-year-old Thoroughbred horses raced one and a half miles in front of a cheering crowd of approximately 10,000 spectators. Aristides was the first winner of the Kentucky Derby.
The Triple Crown is a title awarded to a three-year-old Thoroughbred horse who wins the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes. In the history of the Triple Crown, 13 horses have won all three races: Sir Barton (1919), Gallant Fox (1930), Omaha (1935), War Admiral (1937), Whirlaway (1941), Count Fleet (1943), Assault (1946), Citation (1948), Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977), Affirmed (1978), American Pharaoh (2015) , and Justify (2018). Secretariat holds the stakes record time for each of the three races. His time of 2.24 for 1 ½ miles in the 1973 Belmont Stakes also set a world record that still stands. Justify is the only living Triple Crown Winner since American Pharaoh passed away in 2020.
James E. “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons was the first trainer to win the Triple Crown more than once. He trained both Gallant Fox and Omaha. Gallant Fox and Omaha are the only father-son pair to each win the Triple Crown. Bob Baffert became the second trainer to accomplish this feat, training American Pharaoh and Justify. Belair Stud and Calumet Farm are tied as owners with the most Triple Crown victories with two each.
Once the schedules were set for the Triple Crown (Derby-1st Saturday in May, Preakness, 3rd Saturday in May, and Belmont, 3rd Saturday following the Preakness), scheduling has only been affected twice. During World War II, the 1945 Kentucky Derby was moved from May 5 to June 9, with the Preakness and Belmont following on June 16 and June 23. In 2020, the Triple Crown was altered from its usual sequence due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It started with the Belmont States on June 20, at a shortened distance of 1 1/8 miles. The Kentucky Derby ran on September 5, and finally the Preakness on October 3. 2020 was the first time for the Belmont Stakes to be run as the opening leg of the Triple Crown.
As with any major event, the Kentucky Derby has undergone various changes over the course of three centuries. Some of the most important changes are listed below:
1883-Leonatus wins the Derby and the name “Churchill Downs” is first used to landmark the racetrack that is the home of the Kentucky Derby.
1894-Due to the growing crowd size, a 285-foot grandstand is constructed to accommodate race fans. Chant wins the Derby.
1895-The famed Twin Spires greet the Kentucky Derby Crown. Halma wins the Derby.
1896-The distance of the Derby is shortened from one and a half miles to one and a quarter miles. Ben Brush wins the Derby and receives the first floral arrangement of white and pink roses.
1903-Under the new leadership of Colonel Matt J. Winn, the racetrack celebrates its first profit after the Kentucky Derby on May 2nd. Judge Himes wins the race.
1904-The red rose becomes the official flower of the Kentucky Derby. Elwood wins the race.
1911-The minimum bet is reduced from $5 to $2 and a betting booth is introduced. Two men were stationed in a booth to receive fan’s bets.
1913-The fees to enter a horse in the Derby and the Derby winning prize money are restructured. The new charges are $25 to nominate a horse and $100 for the horse to actually run in the race.
1915-The first filly, Regret, wins the Derby. The publicity establishes the Kentucky Derby as the premier sporting event in America after its 41st running.
1919-Sir Barton wins the Derby and is also the first winner of what would become the Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Racing.
1922-Mor Vich wins the Derby and in addition to winning the purse, he receives a gold buffet service piece including a cup and candlesticks which is the first Derby presentation of its kind.
1924-Black Gold wins the 50th running of the Derby and receives a trophy exactly like the one that is presented today.
1925-The first radio broadcast of the Kentucky Derby takes place on May 16th. The phrase, ‘Run for the Roses” is coined by Bill Corum, a sports columnist for the New York Journal.
1930-Gallant Fox wins the Derby and the term Triple Crown is officially used by the New York Times to describe his wins in the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes.
1931-The Kentucky Derby is permanently scheduled for the first Saturday in May.
1932-Despite the Great Depression, the Kentucky Derby continues to take place. The winner, Burgoo King, is the first Kentucky Derby winner to be draped in a garland of roses.
1938-A tunnel is constructed under the racetrack that connects the grandstand and spectator seats to the field inside the racetrack called the “infield”. Lawrin wins the Derby and is the first to take to a stand built in the infield for the official presentation of the Kentucky Derby winning horse.
1949-The 75th Derby is locally telecast for the first time and Ponder wins the Derby.
1954-The Kentucky Derby winning purse exceeds $100,000 and Determine is the horse to cash in.
1966-The famed “Millionaires Row” dining room is introduced and Kauai King wins the Derby
1968-Dancer’s Image is the first Derby winner to be disqualified. Following the race, Dancer’s Image tested positive for an illegal medication, so the purse was taken from him and awarded to the second place finisher, Forward Pass, who is declared the winner.
1970-Diane Crump is the first female jockey to ride in the Kentucky Derby. Even though she did not win, she brought women to the forefront of horse racing. Dust Commander wins the Derby.
1973-In the 99th running of the Kentucky Derby, Secretariat wins with the fastest finishing time to date. Secretariat completes the race in 1:59:40 and goes on to win the Triple Crown, for the first time in 25 years.
1977-Seattle Slew wins the Kentucky Derby and goes on to win the Triple Crown.
1978-Affirmed wins the Kentucky Derby and goes on to win the Triple Crown.
1985-The Kentucky Derby Museum is opened on the grounds of Churchill Downs Racetrack just one week before the Kentucky Derby is run.
1988-Winning Colors wins the Derby. She is only the third filly in racing history to win.
1999-The Kentucky Derby celebrates its 125th running and Charismatic wins the race. This is the first year fans are able to place Future Wagers. Future Wagers allows fans to bet on contenders leading up to the Derby race, when the odds are higher and there is an opportunity to win more money if the contender wins.
2004-The Kentucky Derby winner is Smarty Jones. He is later featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
2006-Barbaro wins the Kentucky Derby by six and a half lengths, the largest victory since 1946. Barbaro was injured just weeks later in the Preakness Stakes, and passed away after complications of that injury. He was a Kentucky Derby fan favorite and a bronze statue is placed above his remains at the entrance of Churchill Downs Racetrack.
2012-I’ll Have Another wins the race in front of the highest attended Kentucky Derby in history. Wagering also set a record with $133.1 million wagered on the race.
2015-American Pharaoh wins the Kentucky Derby and goes on to win the Triple Crown. He is the first horse to win in over 30 years.
2018-Justify wins the Kentucky Derby and goes on to win the Triple Crown. He is the last horse to date to win the Triple Crown.
I will certainly be watching the Derby on the television this year. Next year I hope we can return to our tradition of hosting a Derby Day party and betting on the horses. To those of you who are brave enough to attend Derby Festival events and/or the Derby, be safe and have fun. To those of you who bet on the Derby this year, may the best horse win!